Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – National Portrait Gallery

21st January 2014

I went along to this exhibition a few weeks ago, 4th January, with a few other students who did the same as me and forced themselves out of the house so soon after the Christmas and New Year festivities.  It was a very worthwhile trip, being the first time I’ve been to the Taylor Wessing, and I came away with a great regard for the artists who not only had their work displayed, but also the thousands of others who were brave enough to send along their work for judging.

It must be an almost impossible job for the judges to decide which sixty portraits to include in the show, never mind the winners.  Getting six people with disparate ideas about what they’re looking for to actually agree must be a triumph, but to have to do so by wading through over five thousand entries makes it more of a miracle.  Who knows what great images were discarded in this process, there must surely have been some, simply because of the lack of a consensus and, like lots of others, I don’t necessarily agree that they finally chose the best ones as the winners from the final selection of sixty.

First of all I must say that all sixty images are extremely good examples of the photographers art.  Unlike a lot of other competitions these days where artists who make other types of work from photographs are allowed to enter, the Taylor Wessing is still purely for images made entirely with a camera, OK, perhaps a little help from Photoshop, but not found art is what I mean.  The framing, lighting and colours are all as they should be, in my opinion, for the scenes that they’re depicting and I’ve personally found a lot I can take away in this regard to add to my practice, particularly as I purchased a copy of the catalogue for future reference.

I love the facial expression that Spencer Murphy caught on Katie Walsh’s face and the fact that it doesn’t pretend to be any sort of ‘portfolio’ image for her to show admirers.  She’s clearly just ridden a very hard race and it really shows in her eyes, the tiredness and with the ‘what-the-hell, get on with it’ expression shows that Katie must be an extremely tolerant person to put up with this sort of thing just after a race and on a busy workday, for her.  I think it shows that being a jockey isn’t all about sitting up there and getting a nice ride around a grass track, like it can be when out hacking, the hard work, sweat and muck that comes with the job shows very clearly.  I think the lesson I learn from this is that it’s necessary to get in there and be a bit forceful when you see the image you want and be prepared to put up with perhaps not being the subjects favourite person of the moment.

I think it’s rather ironic that Giles Price went all the way to India for the image that won him second place.  I know that he wasn’t there to get this image per se, and that the original plan for the trip had to be abandoned due to safety fears from the authorities, but this image could just as easily have had a caption that read Southall, Birmingham or Bradford as the site.  There is a very great deal of similarity in the dress and ethnicity of the subjects that can be seen on many streets in the cities I’ve mentioned and shows that England, certainly, has become a very multi-cultural society, where an image such as this could be made and yet it hasn’t, the normalcy of seeing this scene on British streets has become so commonplace we tend to take no notice of them and long for the more exotic promises from foreign lands when they’re actually here on our doorstep.  What do I take away from this image?  The fact that you must keep your eyes open and your creative mind free whilst you move about in your local social environment and make the most of the chances when they appear; easier said than done I know.

There are only two things that impress me about Anoush Abrar’s image of Kofi Annan, the first is that he was commissioned to make it and that he managed to complete the commission in three minutes.  Getting a commission like this must be thrilling for any photographer, to get ‘the money shot’ in one image must also be exciting as I don’t suppose it happens as often as some would lead us to believe.  Other than that I don’t see anything about this picture that makes it stand-out from the thousands of others made of this man.  Looking at commission parameters from my very humble position, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge-pole quite frankly.  To only get three minutes, in a corridor in the UN building would say to me that what I’m being asked to do doesn’t hold much importance to the subject and is rather derogatory of my skill, but then that’s me from my position now; I wonder what I’d say if it’d been offered to me in reality?  I think I have had a principle cemented by this story, that you need to maintain your values of yourself, your time and your artistic integrity no matter what someone else says they want you to do.  Luckily for me I don’t have to make a living or maintain a reputation within the photography world.

It’s possible to go on-and-on about all the other winners and entrants, noting the lessons learned from their efforts, but there’s a limit to going on-and-on in my opinion, and I’ll wind things up by saying that there is a great deal more viewing to be done after the exhibition, and certainly a great deal of knowledge to be gained about technique, lighting, posing etc. Perhaps someday I’ll have the ability and the courage to enter something to any competition, no matter how humble, never mind the Taylor Wessing and try to emulate what these entrants achieved.


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